London’s tree streets: from One Tree Hill to Nine Elms Lane

greenwich-onetreehillToday let’s go back to Greenwich and the blog that gave us Pigsty Alley and inspired our recent theme of London’s grubby streets. Paxview’s ‘A day in Greenwich’ also discusses One Tree Hill, which gave me the idea of London’s tree-related streets, of which there are many. Starting, naturally, with One Tree Hill – and thank you to @JR_justJR for the photograph, which he took half way between One Tree and the Royal Observatory.

The hill, which is the site of an oak tree, was once called Five Tree Hill; what happened to the other four is uncertain. The one tree was Honor Oak, which took its name from the fact that it marked a boundary of the ‘Honor of Gloucester’ – land belonging to the 12th-century earls of Gloucester.

The tree itself, however, is supposed to date far earlier than that, and there are several stories attributed to it. Queen Boudicca (was supposed to have been defeated here in battle in the year 61. Queen Elizabeth dined under it on the last May Day (for more on May Day celebrations, see )of her life, and Dick Turpin used it as a lookout.

In the late 19th century the oak was destroyed by lightning and another planted close by. The tree was used for the prayers involved in the local beating of the bounds, as with Gospel Oak, and the last of the ceremonies took place there in 1899.

George Cruikshank, cartoonist and satirist, mentions the area in his Comic Almanack):

Then won’t I have a precious lark
Down One Tree Hill in Greenwich Park

(We’ve already covered Gospel Oak which is an area rather than a street, but never mind. There would, at one time, have been an oak tree on or near the boundary between two parishes, in this case, the parishes of Hampstead and St Pancras. The tree, sadly, no longer exists, having last been recorded on an 1801 map. The name itself comes from an old custom of ‘beating the bounds’ and part of this custom was a gospel reading under a large tree.)

Since mighty oaks from little acorns grow, let’s look at Acorn Lane (which no longer exists, alas, but there are Acorn Court, Acorn Parade and Acorn Walk). This name come from an inn sign: the acorn was used in signs partly because it was an attractive design; there is also the theory that it was an indication of the landlord’s intention to grow his business to impressive proportions, however small the beginnings.

The oak itself has long been a common tavern sign as well, Royal Oak being particularly popular. The heart of the oak was used in shipbuilding, and the expression ‘heart of oak’ is used for someone of exceptional bravery. In the language of plants, bravery and hospitality are said to be the qualities of the oak tree; this was particularly true for King Charles II, as he hid in the Royal Oak at Boscobel in Shropshire after losing losing the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Boscobel House is now part of English Heritage and is open to visitors who can see a descendant of The Royal Oak.

Another oak tree that has a London street connection is Allgood Street. In the words of Mae West, “goodness had nothing to do with it” and this street, named for a local antiquarian, HGC Allgood, was previously called Henrietta Street and had somewhat scandalous associations. The Henrietta refers to Henrietta Wentworth, mistress of the married Duke of Monmouth, natural son of Charles II.

Henrietta used her jewels and wealth to help fund Monmouth’s unsuccessful attempts to capture the throne from James II. Monmouth was beheaded in July 1685 and Henrietta died the following year, supposedly from a broken heart. Her mother had an elaborate monument built to Henrietta’s memory in the church at Toddington, the Wentworth’s estate in Bedfordshire. However, a more personal and touching memorial existed in the form of her name, carved by Monmouth, on an oak tree in the Toddington estate. The tree became known locally as the Monmouth Oak.

From acorns to cherries, because of Mary Poppins, who was the magical nanny to the Banks family who lived at Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane in London. While there is no real Cherry Tree Lane in central London, there is one in Romford in Essex. In the capital itself, there are at least one each of a Cherry Tree Close, a Cherry Tree Drive, a Cherry Tree Road, and a Cherry Tree Way.

Elder Street, near Shoreditch High Street, is named for the flowering plant Sambucus nigra, otherwise known as an elder tree. It is part of an estate developed by the Tillard family, Huguenots who acquired land and developed the estate in the 1720s.

Gertler plaque
Photo from

The elder tree is surrounded by a multitude of beliefs and superstitions – for instance, it was thought at one time to be the tree from which Judas Escariot hanged himself, and also to be the wood from which the Cross of Calvary was made, giving rise to its reputation as a symbol of death and sorrow. (Still, the elderflower and the elderberry make great country wines, and I speak from experience of both making and drinking them.)

The painter Mark Gertler, who served as the basis for DH Lawrence’s character Loerke in Women in Love lived in Elder Street from 1911 to 1915.

And on from One Tree Hill to Seven Sisters Road in north London. This takes its name from a tavern called, the Seven Sisters, which in turn commemorated the fact that, in front of it, stood a circle of elm trees with a walnut tree in the centre. The trees, removed in the 1840s, were supposed to have dated back to around the 14th century, planted on the spot where a martyr had been burned.

The seven sisters is a term that refers to the Pleiades, and to the cliffs on England’s Sussex coast, from Cuckmere Haven to Beachy Head, and to a loose association of seven liberal arts colleges in the Northeastern United States that are historically women’s colleges. It also refers to a set of cannons used in the Battle of Flodden, a 16th-century conflict between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland.

Singer Dame Shirley Bassey was a resident of Seven Sisters Road during the 1950s before she became famous and Rob Fleming, the main character in Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity, lives in Seven Sisters Road. (The book was(made into a movie with the wonderful John Cusack, but it is set in Chicago rather than London.)

Counting up to nine and Nine Elms Lane, which is now more of a major road than a lane, running on the south bank of the Thames and past the New Covent Garden market. It was, however (yay! it makes sense) once a country lane which did run past nine elm trees.

There was once a Nine Elms train station which opened in 1838. Nine – appropriately enough – days after it opened it was over-run by more than 5,000 racing fans who rushed there for the eight special trains going near Epsom for the Derby Day. The station was closed to the hoi polloi ten years later; it was, however, still used by Queen Victoria and other worthies such as Giuseppe Garibaldi, who visited England only once, in 1864. When he arrived by special train at Nine Elms station, there was such a huge reception for him that his journey by carriage to Piccadilly (a little over two miles) took six hours.

After being damaged during the World War II, Nine Elms station was finally closed in the 1960s.

EAS_4053Wood Street could be considered cheating, but wood is from trees. This name dates back to the 12th century, supposedly from the fact that all the houses there were built of wood. Some sources have it that, as one of the Cheapside streets, it was given the name because timber and firewood were sold there.

Others, including John Stow, also point to the fact that there was a Thomas Wood, Sheriff of London, who lived in the street and built a row of houses there (“the beautiful row of houses over against Wood street end”), but as he was there in 1491 the name would seem to be more happenstance than commemoration.

There is another tree connection: Wordsworth immortalized the street in his poem ‘The Reverie of Poor Susan’. Susan, a homesick country girl, passes a plane tree at the end of Wood Street, and the song of a thrush emanating from the tree reminds her of her rural life:

At the corner of Wood Street when daylight appears
Hangs a thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of the morning, the song of the bird.

Tyburn tree wikicommons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

And to end on a grisly note, we shouldn’t really overlook one of London’s most infamous trees: Tyburn Tree, the site for centuries of London’s public hangings. Prisoners were originally hanged from trees near the Tyburn River, and in the 16th century an ingenious gallows that could handle several prisoners at once was erected on the spot still marked by a plaque.

Yes, there are lots of yew, acacia and other tree names in London but they are, in the main, just named because the area has been given a lot of horticultural names.

London’s lost trees and rivers: Gospel Oak and the Fleet

On Twitter today I read about plaques that mark the great trees of London, so I thought that seemed like a good cue for discussing the reason behind the name of Gospel Oak. Strictly speaking, this is an area rather than a street, but never mind.

There would, at one time, have been an oak tree on or near the boundary between two parishes, in this case, the parishes of Hampstead and St Pancras. The tree, sadly, no longer exists, having last been recorded on an 1801 map.

The name itself comes from an old custom of ‘beating the bounds’ and part of this custom was a gospel reading under a large tree. St Augustine and John Wesley were among the many people who are said to have preached under this particular oak.

Beating the bounds took place in or just before Ascension Day. Schoolchildren, accompanied by clergyman and parish officers, walked around the parish boundaries, equipped with special wands for beating stones or other boundary markers. Sometimes the children themselves might also be whipped (nominally only) and have water poured on them so that they would remember the boundaries.

In the mid 19th century there were grand plans for developing the Gospel Oak area, up until then largely rural. The railways got there first, and the houses that were built were not the elegant villas that had been planned; instead of being a leafy suburb, Gospel Oak became more of a slum. There was at one time a tavern called the Gospel Oak that was the “noisiest and more objectionable public house in the district”.

The subterranean River Fleet, which gives its name to Fleet Street, flows under Gospel Oak and along to the Thames. Incidentally, ‘fleet’ in this instance is nothing to do with speed: it comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, fleot, meaning a creek or tidal inlet. The Fleet is now underground and is used as a sewer – a function that it has performed since 14th-century butchers used it for cleaning out entrails and others took up the habit by dumping refuse into the stream. In the 18th century, Alexander Pope wrote in his Dunciad of where “Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams, rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames.”